Answer: a lot. This article is aimed primarily at parents of kids who are already at school, especially those who have very little time on their hands.
Spending time with your child
One of the best things you can do at home for your child is to have a Learning Time with him on a daily basis. The Learning Time is just an uninterrupted period with your child that is dedicated to supplementing and/or reinforcing the education he receives from school.
During this time, you can do anything from helping him organise his schedule to having an informal chat with him about what he’s done at school for the day. I’ll talk more about what you can do during the Learning Time in the next section.
Don’t worry if you think you are too busy to be able to spend much time with your kids, because the Learning Time need not take up much of your day. In fact, your child will benefit greatly even if you can only spare half an hour or fifteen minutes per day. Consistency is much more important than long hours, so a daily 20-minute Learning Time is preferable to a weekly 2-hour session.
What the Learning Time is all about
Before I talk about what you can do during the Learning Time, a quick word about preparation. Try to ensure that the learning environment is pleasant and relatively free of distractions. If lots of people are chatting noisily in the background or somebody is watching TV a short distance away, don’t be surprised if your child can’t concentrate!
As mentioned in the previous article, keep everything you do during the Learning Times relaxed and informal, so that your child associates his learning times with positive emotions. This is especially true if he is not used to discussing his schoolwork with you.
If you’re just starting out, all you need to do in the first few Learning Times is familiarise yourself with your child’s work and how he likes to do things. This is all part of getting to know your child. Here are a few obvious ways in which you can do this:
- Ask him if you can look through his books/notes. This will give you the clearest idea of what topics he’s studying, the quality of his work, and his strong and weak points.
- Have an informal chat about what he’s been doing at school. Many children prefer to answer more specific questions than “what have you been doing at school?”, in which case you should just ask him exactly what subjects he’s been studying. Ask him what he likes and dislikes about school, and what he would change if he could.
- Some children prefer writing to talking; if your child is like this, then ask him to write about what he’s studying at school, his favourite and least-liked subjects, what he’d like to improve on, and so on.
Once you’ve familiarised yourself with what your child is doing at school, you can start thinking about how you can use the Learning Times to help him. Exactly what you do during the Learning Time will vary depending on how old your child is, what he’s studying, his interests, and how he likes to learn. I give some examples of things you can try below — notice that you can provide a lot of help to a child even if you don’t fully understand the subjects he’s studying.
- Use the Learning Time to talk about your child’s homework. You can ask him if any homework needs to be handed in soon, and provide him with encouragement if necessary (but don’t do his homework for him!).
- If he has little motivation for his studies, it’s up to you to be the motivator! Provide incentives, give him praise for each small effort, look for ways to make his studies fun, and so on. See the last article for more details on how to do this.
- Help him improve his understanding of his work by asking him to explain some aspects of a topic he’s studying to you. Tell him that you don’t know much about the subject and would like to learn; many children enjoy being the “teacher” for a change!Initially, keep your questions simple to make things easy for him, and don’t worry if his explanations aren’t perfect. Try to guide him towards the right way of thinking (e.g. by asking good questions) instead of just telling him that he’s wrong.
- Similarly to item 3, you could ask him to write an essay about any aspect of a subject he’s studying. In his essays, he could write about what he knows about a certain topic, what he likes or dislikes about it, why he thinks the subject is worth (or not worth!) studying, etc. Again, remember to keep things simple at first, especially if he’s not used to writing.
- Study skills 1: Help your child organise his work. Exactly how you do this depends on your child’s preferences: for example, he could write summary sheets for each subject, structure his books/notes on each subject in a consistent manner, or learn how to make use of colour-coded folders, sticky notes, etc. You could also help him improve the presentation (i.e. the general layout) of his work; even good students often have problems presenting their work, and it can affect the way they think about problems.
- Study skills 2: Suggest or help him gather resources to aid him in his studies. This can involve anything from acquiring information from books and the Internet to encouraging him to ask questions of his teachers and other people. Knowing how to make the most of one’s available resources is a skill many children lack, and hunting for useful materials can be a fun little excursion in its own right.
- Study skills 3: Help your child plan his work. He could make a timetable showing what he plans to do in each day (and you can both see whether he actually followed the plan!); alternately, he could keep a “school journal” so he can keep track of work that needs to be done, write down important deadlines and key dates, identify his strong and weak points, and so on.
- Study skills 4: If your child is revising for exams, you can discuss strategies and come up with a good revision plan. For instance, he should aim to cover all the relevant material well before the exam date, so that he has ample time to practice on past papers. You can also ask him to explain topics to you (this improves the depth of his understanding — see item 3) or try some quizzes (see item 10 below).
Don’t forget that when discussing your child’s schoolwork, it’s important not to make the mistake of thinking that grades are all that matter! The goal shouldn’t always be to get “the right answer”, but to improve your child’s thinking skills and the way he looks at learning and his schoolwork in general.
Finally, the atmosphere of your household also has a considerable effect on your child’s willingness to learn. If everyone else in the house — especially older siblings — spends a lot of time reading or doing constructive activities, it will be very natural for your child to behave similarly. The simplest thing you can do is to behave the way you would like your child to behave.